On July 19, 2019, Twitter had a collective meltdown. The Cats trailer was released, and it was nothing we could’ve prepared for. Despite the onslaught of promotional material for The Lion King, Dora the Explorer, Pokémon Detective Pikachu, and Sonic the Hedgehog, the Cats trailer perplexed audiences more so than any of its similarly CGI-enhanced-character counterparts. In the following days, social media users were suddenly bombarded by horrifying and hilarious reactions to its fur-clad cast — who have collectively earned two Oscars, three Tonys, four Golden Globes, five SAG Awards, seven Emmys, 11 BAFTAs, and 12 Grammys — dancing and singing on oversized furniture.
While James Corden‘s terrifying Bustopher Jones, Jason Derulo‘s uncomfortably flirtatious Rum Tum Tugger, or Dame Judi Dench‘s seemingly naked Old Deutoronomy could’ve dominated the world’s meme output for months, it was Jennifer Hudson’s Grizabella whose unintentional grimace became the perfect reaction-image for these cringy times.
when people sing the run in “shallow” incorrectly at karaoke pic.twitter.com/3Guxb8J2Uh
— brittany spanos (@ohheybrittany) July 19, 2019
This specific frame was taken from the moment Hudson somberly utters “a new day” during the song “Memory,” for which her character is best known. While this scene is melancholic and sympathetic, the online community has re-appropriated it into one of disgust.
As it is with all memes, the original connotations of “Memory” or Hudson’s performance can only go so far in solidifying its meaning for a wider audience. Ultimately, that duty lies in the hands of its viewers, and they’ve chosen this viral, immortal path for the Academy Award winner and her facial expressions. Drawing comparisons to Chrissy Teigen’s crying face as she watched her husband, John Legend, win a Golden Globe for Best Original Song in 2015, the Jennifer Hudson Cats meme demonstrates just how comically cynical an earnest image can become.
— R. Eric Thomas (@oureric) July 18, 2019
While the Cats meme is less of a meme and more of a reaction image, the line that divides those two terms is incredibly narrow. What separates them is the presence (or absence) of text, and the nature of Twitter allows anyone to become a viral meme-maker in under 280 characters. Theoretically, any image can be plucked from its context and spun into something new. But the absolute randomness of this particular meme epitomizes the extreme dislocation between an appropriated image and its origin, between text and image.
When the milk expired pic.twitter.com/t9LywLbTPc
— Craig Bro Dude (@CraigSJ) July 18, 2019
That’s a phenomenon Roland Barthes wrote about in his 1957 book Mythologies. All memes are mythologies by Barthes’ definition. To him, a myth is an appropriated image whose meaning has been distorted over time and, by and large, through media. Significance is born from the collision of the signified (an object, idea, or image) and the signifier (language), but a myth only exists after that initial understanding of meaning becomes something new.
It’s quite similar to Lev Kuleshov’s theory of editing. Beginning in the late 1910s, the Soviet filmmaker began his most notable project: a collection of brief scenes, each opening with the same stoic shot of actor Ivan Mosjoukine before cutting to different subsequent images. Kuleshov chose a bowl of soup, a deceased child, and a woman laying on a divan. Audiences who watched each version reported drastically different interpretations of Mosjoukine’s facial expression (hunger, sadness, and lust, respectively). In doing so, Kuleshov proved that the exact same image can take on vastly different interpretations in different contexts.
With memes, however, they take on such distinct identities over time, limiting their malleability. Unlike the images in the Kuleshov experiment, most memes already have established connotations and those are difficult to untether. It is for this reason that they are so potent— comically and politically. Barthes stresses the intentionality and inherent power of mythologies — both propagandistically and rebelliously. Memes have been a distinct component of right-wing and alt-right internet culture, exemplified most by Pepe the frog, but they’ve also been used to poke fun at ridiculous, offensive, and idiotic posts made by that same political contingent.
While the Cats memes might not seem any more or less ridiculous than every other online obsession, the longevity of this particular, ever-so-random meme seems to reflect more broadly on the internet’s penchant for absurdity, mimicry, and wittiness. The Jennifer Hudson Cats meme has already withstood others taken from the trailer, not because it’s funnier, more unique, or more controversial, but because it has enough adaptability to fit a variety of scenarios, leading to more frequent appearances in one’s feed.
Me watching the Cats trailer pic.twitter.com/ZAMyEDUHaj
— R. Eric Thomas (@oureric) July 18, 2019
Popularity encourages mimicry, and memes are the most fitting example of that. The word meme was first coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. While he discussed it within the context of evolutionary biology, he pulled it from the Ancient Greek word for “imitated thing.” The current definition of a meme is “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.”
The only reason any meme reaches viral status in today’s oversaturated internet is that it’s able to engage a wide swath of viewers and their interests through endless configurations of weird, relevant, and entertaining meanings. Ultimately, all memes are just imitations of a mythology, but their ability to introduce young people to meaningful political action should not be underestimated.